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Readings & Workshops Blog

Christopher Soto (aka Loma) is a queer latinx punk poet and prison abolitionist. Originally from Los Angeles, they now live in Brooklyn. Their first chapbook, Sad Girl Poems, is newly released from Sibling Rivalry Press. They have an MFA in poetry from New York University where they studied with Eileen Myles. For more information, visit christophersoto-poet.com.

Following the release of my chapbook, Sad Girl Poems (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2016), I decided to go on a national tour to end queer youth homelessness. Much of my writing in this initial chapbook discusses my personal relationship to domestic violence, gender tourism, housing instability, etc. I wanted to talk to poetry communities and queer youth across the country about these experiences and about producing poetry in the age of mass incarceration. What does it mean to write about queer youth homelessness while over two million people are incarcerated in the U.S.? What is the historical (and literary) relationship between homeless queer youth and mass incarceration? I wanted to talk about my poems and my histories. I wanted to talk about Vanguard, S.T.A.R. (street transvestite action revolutionaries)The Young Lords, Sylvia Rivera, the Nuyorican Poets Movement, June Jordan, Miguel James, and so on.

Independently, I was able to book events at a handful of universities and organizations. Yet, I was not able to book and venture to smaller organizations which could not afford my travel, accommodation, and reading fees. Artists need to get paid for their labor. We are the thinkers, feelers, culture producers, visionaries in the county! This is where Poets & Writers comes in. At several of my readings in New York City and Chicago, the hosts applied for (and received funding) from Poets & Writers so that I can come speak to their communities. Thank you Poets & Writers! This funding allows me to travel and speak and be paid for the artistic work that I do. I believe that one of the greatest ways to appreciate an artist is to financially support their lives lived as creative people. Currently, the status quo in many literary communities is to underfund artists. Many organizers believe that artists are getting paid with visibility and recognition. These frameworks are false. When artists are not paid it is classist and exploitative (not a privilege). We need to be able to pay for food and rent and living! I am so thankful to Poets & Writers for the funding that they provide to creative people and literary organizations.

I am so thankful for the opportunity to read at all of the universities that have invited me to speak. I remember growing up, and as a teenager listening to spoken word artists feature their work around Southern California venues (such as A Mic and Dim Lights). I wanted so badly to be invited to speak as a feature for someone. I wanted so badly to share my work with the world. Now, years later, I am doing it. I am speaking and writing and traveling and making money from my poems: these little words thrown across the page. My tour dates will be available on my website christophersoto-poet.com and my creative work is also available online for anyone who wants to take a gander. I guess, I will close by saying this: PAY YOUR ARTISTS / END QUEER YOUTH HOMELESSNESS / DEMAND RESPECT FOR YOUR LIFE AND FOR YOUR WORK / YOU DESERVE IT.

Photos: Christopher Soto. Photo credit: Irmand Trujillo

Support for Readings & Workshops in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support form the Louis & Anne Abrons Fondation, the Axe-Houghton Fondation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust and Friends of Poets & Writers, as well as by an endowment established with generous contributions from the Poets & Writers Board of Directors and others.

Adrienne Perry serves as the current editor of Gulf Coast, is a Kimbilio Fellow, and a member of the Rabble Collective. She earned her MFA from the Warren Wilson Program for Writers and is a PhD candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Houston. Perry's work has appeared or is forthcoming from Copper Nickel, Tidal Basin Review, the Journal of Creative Writing Studies, and Indiana Review.

Adrienne PerryWhat makes your organization (press, series, etc.) and its program(s) unique?
Houston, Texas is fortunate to have a vibrant literary community and Gulf Coast hosts just one of its several popular reading series. Over the last few years, the Gulf Coast Reading Series has welcomed to the same stage authors in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston, and authors who live and work outside of the Bayou City. At any given reading, we offer a mix of poets and prose writers, some of whom are up-and-coming and others who are—like Jamaal May, Caitlin Horrocks, Wayne Miller, and Wendy Walters—established in their careers. A Gulf Coast reading may take place on the shadowy second floor of Rudyard’s British Pub or among the brightly lined shelves at Brazos Bookstore. Parts of the reading may be in Old English or in Korean. Either way, these readings are entirely student-run and they are fierce. As the only nationally distributed journal of literature and fine art in Houston, we feel a need to make each reading worth folks’ while. 

What recent project and/or program have you been especially proud of and why?
Most recently, Gulf Coast partnered with the Failure to Identify Series and Project Row Houses to bring 2015 National Book Award winner Robin Coste Lewis to the Eldorado Ballroom. We’re proud of this reading not simply because it was an honor to have Robin reading beneath the Gulf Coast, Project Row Houses, and Failure to Identify banners, but because we are eager to pair up with other arts and cultural organizations in Houston to produce exceptional programing. People still remember Caitlin Horrocks’s reading from her story “Mermaid and Knife,” and we know people will remember Robin’s reading for a long time, too.

What’s the craziest (or funniest or most moving or most memorable) thing that’s happened at an event you’ve hosted?
This question brings out my inner drama queen. Recalcitrant audiovisual devices, late speakers, readers who hijack the microphone, albeit in a well-meaning way—but all of the ups and downs have actually been run of the mill. That said, during a reading at the Houston Printing Museum, the artist Chitra Ganesh was talking about the virtues of Choose Your Own Adventure books when the sky opened up and rain pounded onto the roof, interrupting her for several minutes. Or, maybe it was when one of our fiction editors, Dino Enrique Piacentini, brought his own prop—a little red Dirt Devil vacuum—to a surrealist-themed reading at the Poison Girl Bar.  

How do you cultivate an audience?
This is such a good question and I think this is something we still work on. Because we want to both cultivate an audience and at the same time serve those folks who’ve been devoted to us across time. Cultivating an audience is about making sure that our programming doesn’t just speak to one kind of people. We’re conscious of trying to mix up poets and prose writers, include and acknowledge different identities, aesthetics; and our reading series curators, Martin Rock and Erika Jo Brown have been phenomenal at this. Our events are free, but that doesn’t mean we should be nonchalant about the fact that busy people have taken time out of their day to give a nod to art, to beauty. There’s a kind of responsibility in that. We’ve also learned to stop going it alone. When we pair up with others, our programs are inevitably richer.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
Houstonians love literature in a deliciously unpretentious way. Houston comes out to hear writers who bring them pleasure. We don’t stop enough to consider the vulnerability and pleasure that comes from seeing someone read their work. It’s more than self-expression; it concerns a different way of hearing and seeing and, most importantly, reading.

Photo: Adrienne Perry  Photo credit: Lesli Vollrath

Support for Readings & Workshops events in Houston, Texas is provided by an endowment established with generous contributions from the Poets & Writers Board of Directors and others. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Since 2011, P&W has supported creative writing workshops for Los Angeles seniors through the sponsoring organization EngAGE, a nonprofit that fosters the arts, wellness, and lifelong learning for seniors in Southern California. It started with workshop leader Hannah R. Menkin, and since then P&W has supported workshops led by Morgan Gibson, Mike "the Poet" Sonksen, Michael C. Ford, and Oshea Luja. The workshops, which now take place at both the Burbank and North Hollywood Senior Artist Colonies, bring together creative seniors in their sixties, seventies, eighties, and some even in their nineties. Participants are multitalented—some paint, some sing, some act—and all of them have discovered or rediscovered a love of writing. In part two of a two-part blog report, Jamie Asaye FitzGerald, director of the Readings & Workshops (West) program, reflects on an interview with a few of the workshop participants. (Be sure to check out last week’s blog post by the McCrindle Foundation Readings & Workshops Fellow, Melissa Sipin.)

Kit Harper, Jean T. Ritchie, Lucius Foster

One of the most gratifying aspects of teaching creative writing is witnessing what flows forth when a student, who had no idea they could write or thought they couldn't, discovers they can. Now imagine if that student were someone in their seventies, eighties, or nineties.

"I don’t believe I wrote a poem before I started the workshop," said Abigail Howard, when we sat down to interview her and fellow participants in the P&W–supported poetry writing workshops presented by EngAGE.

Similarly, Jean T. Ritchie commented: "I have never been involved in poetry writing in my life," and ninety-three-year-old Lucius Foster said: "I’ve avoided it all the way through. But things are changing, things are happening...."

Things really are happening at the Burbank and North Hollywood Senior Artist Colonies, where workshop participants have found out something late in life: They can write—and it gives them satisfaction and purpose. 

"I didn’t know I had it in me," said Ritchie. "And I’m very proud."

Foster held P&W staff rapt as he read a poem about his escape from a German POW camp in which he exchanged clothes with a German civilian and rode off on her bicycle, then regaled listeners with other stories of his incredible World War II experiences.

Kit Harper, who has always been an avid writer, credits the workshop with rekindling her passion for poetry: "It is the great passion of my life, I love it very much, and I am at my happiest when I am sweating over the computer." She continued, "I’m grateful that I’ve been given this gift, and I want to do something of value with it."

Harper commented that the workshop has taught her "to blow Darth Vader off my shoulder. The little critic that says: You can’t do it. You’re not Dylan Thomas. That stuff goes on forever!"

The workshop gives students the tools to steer clear of other barriers. “I keep practicing,” says Howard, “I keep picking up the pen. It’s like I forget how to do that. And we come here together and I remember how to do it again.”

It doesn’t take a study to see how these writing workshops are enhancing the lives, not just of the seniors in these workshops, but of the teachers who teach them, and anyone who comes to listen to their wise and wonderful words.

See photos and video from the 2015 Lit Crawl event, On Being a Kid: A Poetry Reading by Los Angeles Senior Artists, which featured participants from the P&Wsupported EngAGE writing workshops at the Burbank and North Hollywood Senior Artist Colonies.

Photos (from left): Workshop participants Kit Harper, Jean T. Ritchie, and Lucius Foster. Photo credit: Tess. Lotta.

Major support for Readings & Workshops in California is provided by the James Irvine Foundation and the Hearst Foundations. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Since 2011, P&W has supported creative writing workshops for Los Angeles seniors through the sponsoring organization EngAGE, a nonprofit that fosters the arts, wellness, and lifelong learning for seniors in Southern California. It started with workshop leader Hannah R. Menkin, and since then P&W has supported workshops led by Morgan Gibson, Mike "the Poet" Sonksen, Michael C. Ford, and Oshea Luja. The workshops, which now take place at both the Burbank and North Hollywood Senior Artist Colonies, bring together creative seniors in their sixties, seventies, eighties, and some even in their nineties. Participants are multitalented—some paint, some sing, some act—and all of them have discovered or rediscovered a love of writing. In part one of a two-part blog report, Melissa Sipin, the McCrindle Foundation Readings & Workshops Fellow, reflects on an interview with a few of the workshop participants. (See part two by Jamie Asaye FitzGerald, director of the Readings & Workshops (West) program.)

Oshea Perry-Luja, Felicia Soisson-Segal, Abigail Howard

“It always helps me to look at the world in the kind of sensuality that poetry pulls out of you,” said Felicia Soisson-Segal, one of the participants in the P&W–supported poetry workshop for residents at the Burbank Senior Artists Colony.

After an hour-long drive across the sprawl of Los Angeles, from the Westside to Burbank, I had just arrived with my colleague, Readings & Workshops (West) director Jamie Asaye FitzGerald, to meet with a group of senior writers for an interview on the workshop series and their creative process. What Felicia said struck me in a profound way, reshifting how I understand poetry’s effect on my daily life—how it allows me to think-feel the world more sensually, to be more present, even after enduring the mind-numbing traffic of L.A.

I first met Felicia and the other participants after Poets & Writers and the cosponsoring organization EngAGE held a reading for seniors from the North Hollywood and Burbank Senior Artist Colonies. The event was called “On Being a Kid: A Poetry Reading by Los Angeles Senior Artists,” and the poems that were read during the event harkened back to Felicia’s sentiments, that the power of writing allows one to think-feel the world, as if we were curious children again. 

Abigail Howard, another Burbank workshop participant, expounded on what Felicia said by describing the writing process: "When I started the poetry workshop and started writing poetry, something opened up. And the feedback from other people said: This was okay; what opened is good.” She continued, “It’s as if I lived in a little dark cave inside of myself and I was able to open up little tiny windows to let something out that I didn’t even know was there. And then that got bigger and bigger.” Abigail’s words reminded me that it is poetry then, and what it pulls out of you, that liberates you from the “dark cave,” which alludes back to the centuries-old allegory of Plato’s cave and the enlightenment of self.

Oshea Luja, the workshop facilitator for Burbank, instructed his classes with this in mind, saying: “I believe we have been working on the soul.” Over the course of the workshops, Oshea and the participants became very close, affectionately dubbing themselves “Oshea’s OWLs—Old White Ladies” after they visited one of his open-mic sessions for youth in Inglewood and recognized they were among the few white audience members there. Oshea described the workshops as a harmonious cross-cultural and cross-generational experience: “We all come from different backgrounds, and yet we are able to harmonize through writing. It’s been music that we’ve been creating together.”

It is my belief that poetry brings out what the body think-feels, which is what D. H. Lawrence once said: “The body’s life is the life of sensations and emotions.... All the emotions belong to the body, and are only recognized by the mind.” This is what poetry pulls out of us: the ageless and timeless inner life.

See photos and video from the 2015 Lit Crawl event, On Being a Kid: A Poetry Reading by Los Angeles Senior Artists, which featured participants from the P&W–supported EngAGE writing workshops at the Burbank and North Hollywood Senior Artist Colonies.

Photos (from left): Workshop leader Oshea Luja and workshop participants Felicia Soisson-Segal and Abigail Howard. Photo credit: Tess. Lotta.

Major support for Readings & Workshops in California is provided by the James Irvine Foundation and the Hearst Foundations. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Myguail Chappel works in the DeKalb County Public Library's Adult Services department. For over ten years Chappel has coordinated diversity programs including One County, Many Voices; Pub Fiction; International Café; the Jubilee of Reading Book Club Conference; and outreach programs to local nonprofit community organizations in the DeKalb community in Decatur, Georgia. Throughout his tenure, Chappel has leveraged funding from Poets & Writers to develop poetry readings and literary readings that highlight the talents of local and national writers who share in the library’s vision of inclusiveness, diversity, and education to nontraditional library patrons and avid library users.

What makes your program unique?
The DeKalb County Public Library’s annual Jubilee of Reading Book Club Conference is unique because it allows booklovers and book clubs an opportunity to meet national and local award-winning authors in an intimate setting. The format of the conference allows attendees to hear each author discuss their writing, ask questions of the author, take pictures, and receive a personalized signed copy of the author’s work. This one-of-a-kind library event is held annually and with the assistance of Poets & Writers, this past year we were able to leverage resources and invite two nationally known authors Nea Simone and Deborah Johnson.

What recent program have you been especially proud of and why?
With the assistance of funding through Poets & Writers, our annual April Poetry Month program, which honors the works of poets, was a highlight for the DeKalb County Public Library. Poet Theresa Davis performed to poetry enthusiasts. Many attendees expressed they were new to her work, but had seen a listing of the event on the Poets & Writers Literary Events Calendar. This helped to expand the library’s publicity resources and allowed for the poet to gain new followers.

What was your most successful literary program, and why?
The most successful literary event has been the fifteenth Annual Jubilee of Reading Book Club Conference that was held on December 5, 2015. Normally we cap registration at one hundred attendees, but with the assistance of Poets & Writers we were able to accommodate over one hundred and fifty attendees. The energy and reception for the conference was magical. Authors and book lovers e-mailed me after the conference expressing that the event was both informative and fun. Author Deborah Johnson wrote, “I am sending you a proper, written thank you but just wanted to send a quickie now to let you know how honored I was to be asked to participate in the Jubilee of Reading. What a fantastic event—everything so well organized and with such fantastic participants.”

What’s the most memorable thing that’s happened at an event you’ve hosted?
Every event that has been hosted has had memorable moments. The most common theme for me would be seeing the joy that literary and poetry readings bring to the audience and the authors. The written word is sacred and to have that sacredness shared from each individual author’s perspective opens up the diverse world we live and participate in.

How do you cultivate an audience?
DeKalb County Public Library has created a great literary following through programming that we offer throughout the year. At the programs, we ask if attendees would like to be contacted about future events and use this database as a way to advertise, along with publicity through local newspapers, flyers, and Poets & Writers' resources, including the free Literary Events Calendar.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
A value cannot be placed on literary programs. The readings have allowed community participants an outlet to begin sharing their stories: to heal their inner conflicts and place value on their lives. Hosting authors has increased our community value by educating the public and creating a more educated society, gaining new readers, and allowing for diverse groups of people to connect and share their love of reading. The programs also give authors a platform to share their work and expand their audience.

Photo: Author Nea Simone at the Jubilee of Reading Book Club Conference. Photo credit: Angela Ried.

Support for Readings & Workshops events in Atlanta, Georgia is provided by an endowment established with generous contributions from the Poets & Writers Board of Directors, and others. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Margo Perin is the author of the novel The Opposite of Hollywood (Whoa Nelly Press, 2015) and editor of Only the Dead Can Kill: Stories From Jail (Community Works/West, 2006) and How I Learned to Cook: And Other Writings on Complex Mother-Daughter Relationships (Tarcher/Penguin, 2004). She has taught writing to incarcerated populations, people challenged by life-threatening illnesses, migrants, refugees, elders, and at-risk youth and adults, and has been featured in the San Francisco Chronicle MagazineO Magazine, and on NPR's "Talk of the Nation." She blogs about a recent P&W-supported writing workshop she conceived and facilitated for San Francisco youth under the auspices of California Poets in the Schools.

Margo PerinIn September and October 2015, I embarked on a series of workshops that linked formerly incarcerated and at-risk youth at the Success Center San Francisco with high school students across the street at the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts (SOTA). I called the project Building Bridges.

The intent of the series was to provide the opportunity for formerly incarcerated and at-risk youth to write about their often invisible life experiences as they develop their creative writing and critical thinking skills, to shed light on their perspectives, and to provide the rare opportunity to foster literary community between young writers of different socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. The workshops would not only help build bridges between young writers, but also between Success Center and SOTA staff, and family and community members.

Success Center and SOTA youth each explored and wrote personal narratives through poetry, prose, and spoken word, and read and responded to each others’ personal narratives. In addition, both groups responded to the feedback, creating an ongoing dialogue of understanding.

The workshops culminated with a reading by Success Center youth that was attended by staff, who expressed a deep appreciation and greater understanding of the life stories and literary talents of their students. To further connect the Success Center and SOTA, I facilitated a visit to SOTA by the Success Center Client Service Specialist, who gave a presentation to students and staff on the demographics and struggles that Success Center youth commonly face. It is my hope that the relationship between these institutions will continue and help to reinforce the bridge of understanding and the literary community initiated by the generous funding of Poets & Writers.

This project was extremely enlightening in terms of highlighting the vast difference in economics, education, literacy, feelings of self-worth, social support and validation, and services for youth in the same city and, in this case, for youth attending schools directly across the street from each other. While many of the students at SOTA can expect to continue into higher education and compete for jobs in fields of their choice as they continue to develop as writers, students at the Success Center struggle every day just to attend class to get their GED and improve their literacy.

I am deeply grateful to the sponsoring organization California Poets in the Schools for their generous, honest, and steadfast dedication to their mission as they provide opportunities for youth to find and express their literary voices, and to Poets & Writers for providing the funding to work with the Success Center writers, which would not have been possible otherwise. I am hoping to share what I learned through this project with the reading public, and with other writers and educators to help further "building bridges" between diverse populations.

Photo: Margo Perin.  Photo credit: Marci Klane.

Major support for Readings & Workshops in California is provided by the James Irvine Foundation and the Hearst Foundations. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers. 

TC Tolbert often identifies as a trans and genderqueer feminist, collaborator, dancer, and poet but really s/he’s just a human in love with humans doing human things. The author of Gephyromania (Ahsahta Press 2014) and three chapbooks, Tolbert also coedited (with Trace Peterson) the anthology Troubling the Line: Trans and Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics (Nightboat Books 2013). His favorite thing in the world is Compositional Improvisation (which is another way of saying being alive).

The Courting Risk reading series annually presents the work of emerging writers working in multiple modes and art forms—from drama and music to visual art, film, and new media. The particular focus is on work that engages with difficult subject matter, writers who are LGBTIQ, women writers, and writers of color. The series has been proud to showcase many writers in the early stages of brilliant careers, and to present a lively, moving and engaging multi-genre performance for audiences.

Courting Risk Group SelfieDear reader,

My job was to describe the incredible time we had back in April at Casa Libre in Tucson, Arizona. Khadijah Queen was visiting—she had curated a Courting Risk reading and there were six of us sharing the bill. The evening was wonderful. It was well attended and it brought folks to Casa Libre we’d never met before. The readers read new work and experimented with old work. It brought people together in the midst of uncertainty. Fear and joy were shared. In other words, it did exactly what the best poetry events will do. 

I’m failing at my job already because I absolutely suck at narrative. Maybe that’s related to my trans-ness. The body did one thing; the voice did another. We keep changing. I trust it’s not the summary that matters. Let’s begin again. And again. I wrote an essay after that evening. I’d like to share it now. Enacting the principle of Courting Risk.

—TC Tolbert

"The sound of snow letting go/What are mountains"

I remember sitting at Bentley’s with my mom and my girlfriend. It was my mom’s first visit to Tucson. I hadn’t started testosterone yet, but I was wearing a compression shirt and consistently being referred to as “he.” I’m still a little bit suspicious when things are easy or good. I didn’t understand why she no longer seemed angry with me. When I say I want to be a nurse, what I really mean is that I want to live closer to mystery. I think (too much) about security but I don’t actually care about a career. The other day I woke up at 3:00 AM because a jackrabbit landed on me.

For a long time after rolling a friend over to discover that what was supposed to be her face had been replaced by a mess of blood and dirt and swollen skin, I asked every health care provider I could find if the human body is more fragile or more resilient than it seems. Last week, B took his shirt off in the snow and I couldn’t help staring at his little man-belly. A day later, an avalanche covered where we were standing, and we were all sunburnt. Lidia Yuknavitch says: The body is the ultimate container for the disparate. I didn’t know I could love J, K, or B because I thought I knew them already. The only moments that matter to me are when I realize I don’t actually know anything.

I’m a little freaked out about my climbing assessment tomorrow. But academia has felt so sad lately. Which is another way of saying wasteful. I keep buying apples and then eating the meals provided for us here on base. Psychotherapy taught me that I need people. But M says it’s not an “evidence-based practice.” I'm terrified of substituting efficiency for effectiveness. Every time I realize how accustomed I am to approximation, I can’t decide if that’s surrender or despair. Actually, I don’t have to climb anything. I just need to be able to identify good anchors. And I need to manage some risks while avoiding others. And I need to inspire at least a little bit of confidence. And I need to know how to rescue someone on a releasable rappel. TC Tolbert

My mom (hell, my entire family back in Tennessee) is religious. Pentecostal. I’ve spoken in tongues before. The tension over me coming out as queer and then trans had been there for years. She said she’d been praying for God to change me for as long as she could remember. Then she said: I found a new prayer. (All the doctors said the answer is “more resilient.”) She asked God to change her. As it turns out, no amount of insurance will actually keep you safe. I’ll buy it because I tend to follow directions but my only real comfort is this.

Photos (top: left-right): TC Tolbert, Kristen Nelson, Shelly Taylor, Bill Wetzel, Amy Lukau, Khadijah Queen. Photo credit: TC Tolbert; (bottom): TC Tolbert. Photo credit: Mamta Popat

Support for Readings & Workshops events in Tucson is provided by an endowment established with generous contributions from the Poets & Writers Board of Directors and others. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

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